Choice of new pope could have more drama than usual
Every 600 years or so, a pope resigns. Those who believe the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI heralds impending major change in controversial policies should keep that in mind. It illustrates that the church's perspective is more the long sweep of history than current events.
The last time a pope resigned - Gregory XII in 1415 - it was to help resolve a schism. Pope Benedict broke new ground, saying that he would resign due to health issues that make it impossible for him to fully execute his duties.
Since his elevation in 2005, Benedict's tenure has been overshadowed by unresolved controversies regarding clerical abuse of children in Europe and the United States, declining participation in the church in many of its traditional strongholds and tenuous relationships with some other major religions.
Most of the cardinals who elected the highly conservative Benedict will have a say in naming his successor, along with some new, mostly conservative cardinals. It is likely that they will seek a successor to maintain Benedict's philosophy and policies.
The church has experienced demographic shifts, however, that could make for a historic choice. Though the church's administration is eurocentric, its membership has stagnated in Europe and North America while growing in parts of the third world. Several cardinals from South America and Africa have emerged as candidates to succeed Benedict, who is a German and the former Archbishop of Munich.
Papal succession always has an element of drama and it will be interesting to see how it plays out, for the first time for everyone involved, with a retired rather than deceased pope.